Without a doubt, the papacy is a grand stage, the pope its lead actor, and every action of the pope is theater. Some popes, like John Paul II, excel at using their time in the limelight to push forward their agendas. Some, like poor, hapless Benedict XVI, never get their lines right or their cues down.
But Pope Francis might just outshine them all. He has become extraordinary to many, not because of the brilliance of his words or the sweep of his movements, but by the evident largeness of his heart and depth of his soul. Recently, while touring St. Peter's square in an open car, he saw a man in the crowd whose face was severely disfigured by tumors and growths. This sort of disfigurement is rare in our age of advanced medicine. And it is all the more repellent because it is so far from our daily experience.
But Francis stepped out of his car, embraced the man, kissed his forehead, and prayed with him. He saw Christ in a man whom disease had turned ugly. He singled him out for affection and a display of grace. And he taught the world a lesson in compassion and Christian love.
For too long, Christianity has fought on the muddy ground of the culture wars. By allying itself so directly with partisan politics, the Church has alienated many and stunted the spiritual growth of the rest. But the gospel is not a partisan weapon, to be used to destroy one's political enemies. The gospel is a tool meant to deliver compassion. The gospel rewards those who show compassion, and thereby teaches it to those who merely watch.
The culture wars, in which a person's stance on a single issue (like abortion) can define their sense of self-righteousness, pale by comparison with the actions of the gospel's servants. To fight in the Wars of Culture makes one hard, unyielding, unforgiving and distant from people's lived reality. To fight for the gospel makes one vulnerable, involved at an intimate level with the lives of people, tolerant and loving.
Thank you, Pope Francis, for showing us again the way out of coldhearted irrelevance, and into the warm and life-giving embrace of the Son.